England – Wales – Russia – Slovakia
We rank England as the second worst of the six group favourites but they’ve been handed a fantastic draw as we have the average grading of the other three teams in their group as lower than in any other. With a useful advantage in our gradings over the second best team, Russia, they really should be winning this group.
Roy Hodgson led England to a perfect record in qualifying and as they look to make up for their flop in Brazil there are reasons to be positive about the Three Lions’ chances here. While they scored only twice in the World Cup group stage exit they can now call upon one of Europe’s most prolific strikers in Harry Kane as well as the pace and intensity of Leicester’s title winner, Jamie Vardy. Wayne Rooney’s form might not be as great as he’d like, and while he top scored for England in qualifying, how important Hodgson makes his captain to England’s play could impact their chances here.
Recent wins over Germany and France show they can beat the best teams. Defensively they look vulnerable but Eric Dier is potentially their best holding midfielder since Owen Hargreaves was England’s Player of the Year in 2006. It’s the youngest squad in the tournament but they’ve shown they’re capable and England’s recent record against their group opponents is excellent. They’ve won eight of nine meetings with Russia, Wales and Slovakia since 2002/03, though Hodgson will hope to improve on England’s record in group openers at tournaments since 1990 that has seen them win just two of 11 matches.
In contrast to England, Russia bring the oldest squad with them and look to be a team on a downward trajectory. They scored 11 times in their two qualifying wins over Moldova but just 10 goals in their other eight matches, as they went W4-D2-L2, is some fairly modest form. Since making the semis at Euro 2008 their tournament form has been poor as they failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and won just one of six group matches at Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 as they failed to reach the knockouts at either.
However, there is some hope for them in their improved form since Leonid Slutsky took over from Fabio Capello in August. He’s also the current coach of CSKA Moscow, who have won the Russian Premier League this season, and with an almost exclusively homegrown squad including seven CSKA players he should deliver a more cohesive approach than Capello ever managed.
Wales qualified impressively behind heavyweights Belgium. They were unbeaten until their penultimate game and actually took four points off the group winners. Nevertheless, the rest of the group was weak and a total of 11 goals scored from their 10 games is a clue of what we can expect from Chris Coleman’s side.
Gareth Bale gives them a threat in attack, but it’s virtually the only one as he scored seven of those 11 goals and assisted for two of the others. However, with a strong defence and support from Aaron Ramsey in midfield they should at least be tough to beat.
Slovakia beat both Spain and Ukraine in qualifying as they made it to their second major Finals. Much like Wales they are a squad built around one star player in Marek Hamsik. The Napoli star also top scored for his nation in qualifying but, as with Wales, against better teams the lack of support elsewhere in the team is likely to be exposed.
England’s rejuvenated attack and greater creativity should give them an edge over their weaker and more defensive Group B rivals. Russia’s improvement under Leonid Slutsky, meanwhile, makes them deserved second favourites but we wouldn’t be backing them to qualify given both Wales and Slovakia look capable of upsetting them.